Have you ever felt that the endless planning, maneuvering, and (not least) paying required for a relaxing vacation tends to cancel out the "relaxing" part?Problem solved: journey with this clan to Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, where a blissfully uncomplicated, $100-a-night, thatch-roofed resort lets them unwind in easy style

Richard Fousler Costa Rica
| Credit: Richard Fousler

My husband and nine-year-old son were itching to surf. My daughter, age five, and I longed to play in the sand. We wanted a painless flight from our home in New York; an inexpensive, well-situated hotel; and adventures we could take—or leave. Fortunately, we knew just where to find all this: Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, on the Pacific coast. Recently accessible from the States thanks to an expanding local airport, it’s a mecca for beach bums and wannabes.

Our family had vacationed in these parts a couple of years ago, taking a cruise down a jungle river, spying on monkeys in Manuel Antonio National Park, and going on an expedition to see leatherbacks, the world’s largest turtles, lay eggs on the beach before they headed back to sea. It was during a day spent watching surfers on Nicoya’s beaches that my husband, Richard, and I made a mental note for next time. And so for the two weeks of Harvey and Oona’s March school vacation we decided to stay put at Hotel Playa Negra, a compound of 10 enchantingly rustic thatch-roofed bungalows on a black-sand beach with an impressive break (you can catch it in Endless Summer II). Friends who have two kids around the same ages as ours planned to join us for our second week, which turned out to be when another group of families we all knew would be staying just north of the peninsula at the Four Seasons, the country’s most lavish resort. How could I not insist on a sleepover at their place?

Costa Rica Rustic

Our days at Playa Negra quickly fell into an agreeable rhythm, starting with breakfast at the hotel’s poolside open-air rancho—platters of papaya, mango, pineapple, and banana; gallo pinto (rice and beans); and tostadas francesas (French toast). Then we all got wet. Richard and Harvey learned to ride the waves with the help of Manu, from the Playa Negra Surf School, while Oona and I splashed in the shallows (and diligently stayed out of the current).

We loved having lunch at Lola’s, on nearby Playa Avellana, where guests sit at palm-shaded tables made from tree trunks right on the white sand, and the Dutch-American owners serve perfect thin-crust pizza and seared-tuna salads (but no pork, out of respect for their resident 800-pound pet pig, Lola). Afternoons revolved around the resort’s main pool—where iguanas the size of Chihuahuas crawled by—or pool table. Harvey and Oona took up with a dozen or so other kids who were staying at Playa Negra and in rental houses along the beach, some of them hailing from the U.S. and Canada, others from Uruguay, Honduras, and Costa Rica’s capital, San José—none of them in the least bit hampered by the language barrier. The children invented billiard games while running up smoothie tabs at the hotel bar, then chased one another through the bare, twisted trunks of mangle trees.

Dinner might be a half-mile away in the town of Los Pargos, a typical Costa Rican village—school, bar, market, soccer field—with a surprising number of good restaurants, including Café Playa Negra, offering Peruvian cuisine and a trampoline that kept the kids happy before and after grilled mahimahi and lomo saltado, or jumping steak. (The local Brahman cows produce exceptionally tender, not-to-be-missed beef.) Back at our bungalow, bullfrogs sat croaking on our doorstep, and howler monkeys whooped from the trees. By 10 p.m. we were all dreaming beneath the breeze of the ceiling fan, though the nightly invasion of ants would sometimes have me up swatting the floor beneath our bed with a flip-flop.

The hotel manager offered to arrange fishing trips and zipline outings in the jungle for us, and though our friends tried and loved them all, my own crew was too busy relaxing. The horseback ride we booked one day turned out to be more than enough excitement. My husband got stuck with the loco Mataritta, who suddenly decided to gallop down a cliff; although Richard, a photographer, managed to hang on, his camera went flying. (He took the pictures on these pages with a spare.) Our other big thrill: our 24-hour excursion to the Four Seasons, to see how the other half vacations.

Costa Rica Cushy

Our kids were barefoot, their hair tangled when we arrived at the secluded spread a 1½-hour’s drive north of Playa Negra on the Gulf of Papagayo, where children in polo shirts played Xbox in an air-conditioned teen center. (Luckily, we’d all packed some "Four Seasons" clothes to wear to dinner that night.) The design of the buildings, influenced by native fauna, is amazing—the shingled roofs evoke an armadillo’s scaly shell. Our room had a terrace overlooking the gulf, a deep marble soaking tub, and hand-carved cedar beds with 600-thread-count sheets (I checked immediately: no ants!). We ran down to find our friends at the S-shaped pool, where attendants instantly appeared with cucumber slices for our eyes. Yes, thanks, we’d love a chilled, lemon-scented towel, too. We’d entered a world of paddleboat rides, touch football on the lawn, serious golf, and aprés-sun facials—bliss.

Still, we had found our own groove, and back at the surf resort our kids promptly rejoined their roving band. One afternoon was devoted to digging in the tide pools for hermit crabs and piling them into plastic beer cups. Another day the manager’s eight-year-old daughter had all the children stringing bead-and-shell necklaces to sell on the beach—the local version of a lemonade stand. When some older boys knocked coconuts out of the trees, a cook cut them open with a machete and stuck in straws so everyone could sample the sweet milk. Like everything else about our stay, it was both simple and sublime.

Ursula and Richard Fousler own The Small Dark Room, a photo lab in New York City.

When to Go

Known for pristine waters and dry tropical forests, the Nicoya Peninsula is usually warm, and— unlike much of the country—arid from November to April. During the rest of the year there are daily showers, though the sun always comes out at some point, and the landscape is at its greenest.

How to Get There

Several U.S. airlines, including Delta, American, and Continental, have direct flights to Liberia’s Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport, in the province of Guanacaste. At the airport, you can catch a hotel shuttle or rent a four-wheel-drive SUV for the journey to the coast. Hotel Playa Negra is 1 1/2 hours southwest, the Four Seasons is 45 minutes west. Expect dusty, bumpy roads (though the one that leads to the Four Seasons is well paved), and views of teak farms and grazing cattle.

Where to Stay

Hotel Playa Negra

The resort’s 10 bungalows each have a queen-size bed, two twins, and a simple bathroom with a shower. A kiddie pool adjoins the freshwater swimming pool. The restaurant serves simple grilled fare. Surf lessons are $20 an hour for group sessions, $35 for private. Jungle excursions are less than an hour away. playanegra.com; 011-506/652-9134; bungalows for four $100.

Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo

Just north of Nicoya, here’s Costa Rica at its most pampering—an 18-hole Arnold Palmer golf course, tennis courts, three pools, a spa, kids’ programs, and a full menu of outings, including a jungle-canopy zip-line minutes away. The Gulf of Papagayo’s placid waters are a boon for parents with little ones. fourseasons.com; 800/332-3442; doubles from $735.

El Sueño, Tropical Hotel

One of dozens of inexpensive bungalow lodges along the Nicoya coast, El Sueño is 1 1/2 miles from white-sand Playa Carillo. elsuenotropical.com; 877/456-4338; doubles from $107, two-bedroom apartments from $157.

Tour Operators

Want to travel all over Costa Rica?These outfitters offer custom and organized group trips.

Costa Rica Expeditions

The country’s leading tour company has more than 100 itineraries and runs three well-regarded lodges. 011-506/257-0766; costaricaexpeditions.com.

Thomson Family Adventures

Their high-energy trips, including white-water rafting, enthrall teens. 800/262-6255; familyadventures.com.